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Corrin Bronersky


Mom

 

People talk about how you end up with someone that’s like your parents, which always struck me as something weird and Freudian, until I met Lena. She looked more like my mom than my mom did sometimes, with the same wide, thoughtful brown eyes. The kind that remind you of the melting chocolate chips in homemade cookies: warm, soft, and sweet.

Her eyes bore into mine as my tongue wound its way around the wet folds between her legs. She pulled at my hair and I trailed kisses up her stomach as I replaced my tongue with my fingers. I sucked on the flesh that was pulled tight across her collarbones as she bucked against my hand, forcing my fingers deeper. She was warm and slick, and I gasped with her as she tightened her legs around me. My gasp resounded from the sudden prickling of a winter breeze coming in through the cracked window. It sent unpleasant goosebumps across my skin, chilled and starkly different from the smooth warmth of her body on mine. I focused on the heat inside her and the places her body met mine as she moved.

I closed my eyes for a second, imagining wrapping myself up in a blanket as warm as she felt around my fingers, not unlike the feeling I got curled in the quilt my mom made for me before I’d left for school. Lena’s moans brought me back to her; I slipped another finger in. I wondered how many fingers I could fit my whole hand? My fist? Would she like that? I remembered learning that a vagina could stretch enough to accommodate a baby.

I flexed my other hand—definitely smaller than a baby. Another frigid breeze wound its way around my body, and my mother’s words echoed, “I kept you warm and safe inside me for nine months.” I imagined that, the warmth and comfort, what it would be like. A blanket, I thought, or maybe more like a cocoon. If a full-grown human found itself in another womb, would it emerge as something new?

Without thinking, I fit another finger in, then eventually my fist. She pushed into me; she liked it. Her moans were loud, and I pushed deeper. She began to thrash at my elbow, her mouth wide as she screamed. I couldn’t hear her, though; I only saw the big, warm brown eyes of my mother, welcoming me home. I was up to my shoulders by the time the next wave of cold air hit me. It was so jarring in comparison to the smooth, warm chamber my arms inhabited, that it propelled me forward. My head dove in; it was quiet, and dark, and above all, I wasn’t cold. She’d stopped moving much before this point. I pushed with my legs until my torso was firmly placed in her. I wondered briefly if I would fit wholly. I was bigger than her, so I shifted, and tucked my head into my chest as I curled my spine in. Slowly, the rest of me followed. The fetal position worked as well now as it had twenty-three years ago. I was wrapped in a smooth dark cocoon. I felt safe and comfortable; the stress of life seemed miniscule here. Nothing to stress over when encapsulated, where life is fostered and protected. Maybe I could live here forever.

_______________________________
Corrin Bronersky is a Chicago based writer and can be found in various coffee shops around the Chicagoland area. She eats, sleeps, and breathes words and coffee.  She has been recently published in The Lab Review at Columbia College Chicago.

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Douglas Perry


The Girls of Murder City

 

Interview by Claire Doty

Chicago is not known for its gentle history—a devastating fire, corruption, and a wild gangster scene are just a few of the gritty scars imbedded in the city’s timeline. The famous musical Chicago echoes that history with a wry and comical twist. Few know, however, that its origins came from actual events that happened in Chicago. Author Doug Perry opens the curtain to the fascinating world in the 1920s in his book The Girls of Murder City (2010), which delves into the lives of women in Chicago in the bustling time of prohibition, crime, and lust. Perry creates a historical narrative that guides us through each woman’s tale, whether it be a blossoming reporter or an accused murderess. 

Perry has a great understanding of Chicago as a city in the 21st century as well as the in the early 20th. His extensive research led him to find documentation that was overlooked and considered  ordinary, but in fact added depth to the complicated history of the women who inspired Chicago. He sheds light on the roles of females and the struggles they faced in a male-dominated world, which threads into the issues women still face today. Perry sheds new light on common plot points—that some human qualities linger decades longer than humans themselves, and that those modern humans are not so different from their predecessors. In delving into the past, the present becomes sharper.

Claire Doty: What made you interested in the history of these particular women?

Douglas Perry: I saw the musical Chicago on Broadway and enjoyed it immensely. Not only was it hugely entertaining, [but] it also struck me as insightful, clever and topical. The best work Kander and Ebb ever did, in my view. The playbill mentioned in passing that Maurine Watkins, the author of the original play on which the musical was based, had been inspired by actual murder trials she covered for the Chicago Tribune in 1924. This intrigued me, and I went looking for books, articles, essays—anything that had been written about the play’s source material. But I was surprised to find there was very little information available about the events that inspired the play and musical.

CD: Where did you start your research?

DP: I started in the Chicago Public Library, where I spent days going through its newspaper archives. There were half a dozen daily newspapers in 1920s Chicago, and newspaper coverage was a lot different—and far more entertaining—than it is now. Reporters routinely impersonated police officers to get information. They broke into and ransacked the homes of murder victims in search of diaries and photographs. Crime reporters at this time could walk freely through police stations and jails at all hours. They sat in on and participated in police interrogations. They investigated crimes themselves, trying to stay a step ahead of homicide detectives. Reporters hung out at the Cook County Jail and interviewed “the girls of Murderesses’ Row” at length, over and over, without the women’s attorneys present. While it was, in some ways, a more brutal time, it was also a more naïve time. These women who were facing murder trials were often remarkably candid when talking to reporters.

The newspapers, of course, were only the beginning. I delved into government records, where I unearthed a lot of valuable information. Belva Gaertner’s divorce records, for example, proved to be a treasure trove. The documents walked me through her life almost year by year from about 1917 to about 1926. They included long interviews with Belva and her husband, and detailed reports from private investigators. One of the great things about historical research is that you don’t know what you’re going to find until you start looking. These divorce records were in Cook County’s archives, sitting untouched in a dusty box for 80 years. No one knew they were there. They hadn’t been digitized and put online, and they probably never will be. Such records aren’t about celebrities or world leaders, and they’re mostly commonplace documents, so they are a very low priority for archivists. But there are some fantastic stories there. Having gotten started, I began tracking down and reaching out to descendants and others who knew (or knew about) those involved in the events. One thing kept leading to another.

CD: What inspired you to write about Chicago’s crime history?

DP: I moved to Chicago right after college and lived there for most of the 1990s. I instantly fell in love with the city. Chicago is always changing, evolving, reaching out to the future—but its history remains front and center. You can walk through the neighborhood where Maurine Watkins lived in 1924 and still get a fair sense of what it was like then. The building where Eliot Ness and the Untouchables worked looks—on the outside—almost exactly the same today as it did 80 years ago, though it’s been converted to residences. It’s not far from Columbia College, of course. I used to live just blocks from the Biograph Theatre, where John Dillinger met his end. My favorite used bookshop—now gone, sadly—was two doors down from the theater. I learned the city during my first year in Chicago by spending my weekends riding the El, getting off at random stops and walking around. If you keep your eyes open, the city’s whole history is right there for you.

CD: What intrigues you about Chicago?

DP: It’s the all-American city, by turns beautiful and terrifying. There’s just an excitement about Chicago, and it’s something very different from what New York offers. “Stormy, husky, brawling,” as Carl Sandburg wrote. It’s the most interesting city in the country. 

CD: How would you categorize your book? 

DP: The Girls of Murder City is history, but I like to think it’s more than that. It’s about unique events that took place in 1924, but like the musical Chicago, it speaks loudly and clearly to today’s celebrity culture. It’s also. . .funny. It showcases how there’s really no such thing as normal. We all want to fit in—and we’re in a conformist era right now—but people are odd, and strange things happen. Thank God for odd people and strange happenings.

CD: In crime and gangster history, especially in Chicago, the focus is always on men. Do you think there is almost more respect for men who engaged in crime rings in the 20th century than there is for women?

DP: Chicago’s famous gangster era was a man’s world, there’s no way around it. The early twentieth century was a time of social upheaval and transformation. Women were gaining new freedoms, and this inevitably had a dark side. But of course a lot of people still had 19th-century attitudes, and so they had a very difficult time coming to terms with the very idea of women committing crimes. Violence was widely considered an unnatural act for a woman. When it happened, there had to be extenuating circumstances: the woman had been abused by a man or tricked by a man, or—ye Gods!—was in love with a man and so had lost her mind. A woman who killed surely had been overwhelmed by alcohol or feminine emotions, or both, and so she was not responsible. Cook County juries were all male, and so women—especially good-looking women—were almost always acquitted, no matter how much evidence there was.

CD: What is your opinion on the glamorization of certain crimes?

DP: I’m not in favor of glamorizing crime. While researching the book, I found Belva and Beulah to be endlessly fascinating. And my heart broke for Wanda Stopa, the pioneering “girl lawyer” who ended up killing a man. She was even bigger news than Beulah and Belva. The newspapers called the public’s appetite for her story “the Wanda sensation.” But I tended to relate to Maurine Watkins, who was appalled that women murderers were being treated like celebrities. It infuriated her that Beulah and Belva were using their gender and sex appeal to manipulate the justice system. She did everything she could to help secure convictions for them.

CD: What did you want readers to take away from your book?

DP: The march of technology increasingly makes earlier generations seem very strange and distant to us, but people haven’t changed much down through human history. Our motivations are the same generation after generation, and so there is much we can learn by studying the past, the “small” events and people as well as the big ones. And in this era of 24/7 entertainment and 400 scripted TV series, I would like readers to realize that truth really is stranger than fiction. At book events, I heard over and over from readers that they had no idea Chicago was based on real events. They would say: These beautiful, murderous, in-your-face women—how could their stories be true? But if you study history, you know the real question is—how could they not be?

 To learn more about Perry’s writing visit his website.

November 21, 2016

Tags: Douglas PerryThe Girls of Murder CityClaire DotyChicago HistoryInterview

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Ben Lerner


10:04

 

By Cody Lee, Reviews Editor

The Upper-Middle-Class White Man has spoken, and god, I can read his prose book and book again. Let me explain that there is nothing unique about this story (a thirty-three-year-old writer slugs around N.Y.C., writing things, getting drunk, and overanalyzing his thoughts). It’s essentially a tale that the fellow walking down Michigan Avenue might explain over a glass of Glenfiddich 15. However, that’s what makes 10:04 by Ben Lerner golden, and furthermore, human; the colloquial tone intertwined with Lerner’s poetic (sometimes, perhaps, pretentious) language leads the reader into a bittersweet tunnel of intrauterine insemination, Ketamine, and New Yorker articles, all during an assumed apocalyptic countdown.

Although the novel’s only 241 pages, Lerner is able to squeeze a myriad of information into the text (e.g. his love of cooked baby octopi, the process in which instant coffee becomes packaged, the little pre-piss dip and lift that men do when pulling out their own package), but above all, Lerner discusses the omnipotent deity: The Dollar Bill. 10:04 reads as a nagging mother with nil more than money on her mind, which can be upsetting, but all Mom’s trying to do is prepare the reader for the real world. Perusing the book as a college student (in a liberal arts school, especially), one might become quite frustrated while listening to the narrator brag about his “strong six-figure” advance, but realistically, who wouldn’t boast a bit if they received two full-year salaries for one unfinished novel? As annoying as the money-talk seemed sometimes, I wanted more, more, more because not many (fiction) authors seem to supply such data. In 10:04, Lerner points out that an article in the New Yorker pays approximately $8,000. No one wants to say how much they’re paid . . . I would thoroughly enjoy sitting in a small white room, directly across from Ben Lerner while he spits out number after number in relation to the writing community. As dull as digits seem to writers, I can speak for myself—and probably a few others—when I say that, as a twenty-two-year-old African-American “kidult” with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, it’s definitely a dream of mine to live like an upper-middle-class white man, and talk about my funds (acquired via publications, stipends, etc.) for hours on end.

The story bounces back and forth in this meta I’m-writing-a-novel-that’s-super-similar-to-my-actual-life first-to-third-person mashup, which works surprisingly well in its subtlety for the first few switches, but once it grows obvious that the narrator’s basically narrating himself, the point-of-view seesaw becomes cute, but not much more.

What I find delightful about 10:04 is the narrator’s disgust of the art world in which he’s involved fused together with his obvious knowledge that he himself is indeed associated with the bourgeoisie, and not just some ghost, hovering over the masses and laughing at their idiocies (although, one could argue that the middle class does hover over the masses, but typically avoids laughing because laughing at people is uncivilized and an example of improper etiquette). This becomes apparent when the narrator’s at dinner with a few acquaintances—mostly distinguished writers or English professors—and he observes “the distinguished male author” spaz out (in Spanish) on the busboy who poured him still water instead of sparkling. Directly after, when the narrator’s water is poured, he’s unsure whether to thank the worker in English or Spanish . . . clearly, the narrator has never worked any sort of service position, because anyone who has knows that a simple “thank you” will suffice.

I can’t help but think of Lerner’s (page-and-a-half) reference to Walt Whitman: the self-proclaimed Everyman, although apparently not, since he was Walt Whitman and all . . . I wouldn’t go as far as to say that Lerner’s the neo-Whitman, but the arrogance, married with the pedestrian-esque blanket that’s thrown over the arrogance (not to mention the eroticism) definitely allows my mind to imagine a bloodline connecting the two; one drop counts, check history textbooks.

10:04 does exactly what a novel is supposed to do: it takes the reader out of their own unexceptional life, and transfers them into the shoes of someone else. However, this “someone else” happens to be just as ordinary as the reader, thus relatable, thus automatically okay. This is in regards to the content, now add money that I don’t have but would love to learn to obtain, and sprinkle in a layer of poetics (all novels aside, Ben Lerner is a poet), and out comes 10:04: an intelligent look into the brains of the bifocaled souls on train rides home, or rather, you, me, and everyone else with hopes of living as The Upper-Middle-Class White Man, the Everyman.

Similar works:

Literature: Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen

Film: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World directed by Lorene Scafaria

Etc.: “there’s too much blood in the attic today” by happy jawbone family band

Cody Lee has no sense of humor, and hates everyone. He’s smart, too.

January 02, 2017

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Trevor Templeton


Magna Mater

God, I hate this gym, I thought to myself when I pulled up to Magna Fitness that night. The lot was empty enough that I could see the line of benches, free weights, and squat racks from my car. Think they’re so fucking special not putting the cardio equipment upfront, where literally every other gym puts it.

The only thing that got me out of the car was remembering yesterday morning. I had finally gotten in for the free training session I was promised at sign up and Amanda, the cute trainer with the legs of a stallion, had let her hand find the swell of my post-workout bicep. She looked at me with those big brown eyes and a grin that was almost feline when she told me how bad she felt that it had taken so long for us to see each other. That she usually gets the late shift, and we would probably see more of each other if I worked out later. That she would take it as a compliment if I did.

Is there anything a pretty girl can’t get you to do? I asked myself, as I traversed the dimly lit parking lot.

When I walked through the entrance, I didn’t see the usual bodybuilder-type manager behind the desk. Instead, this guy was lean, not jacked. His face was narrow, and he was so bald his head shined like it had been waxed. He also had a fang-like snaggletooth protruding from his upper right jaw.

“Welcome!” he said, perking up from behind the desk’s outdated computer.

“Hi,” I responded, pulling my membership card out as I approached.

“Someone’s got the thousand-yard stare,” he said, grabbing a towel from behind the desk. 

I glanced at the USMC tattoo filling most of his bicep. Is this guy baiting me? I asked myself.

“Nah, just leg day,” I replied, putting my card on the desk.

Ooooh,” he said, dropping the towel on the counter. “Now that’s what I call: The Suck.”

I took the towel and slung it over my shoulder. Either he’s baiting you or that tattoo’s just for show, I thought to myself. I stared at the scanner, waiting for him to put my card under it.

“Haven’t seen you before,” he said, taking my membership card. “Just sign up?”

“About a month ago,” I replied. “I don’t usually come this late, though.”

Oh-hoh,” he said, nodding, “That explains it. I’m the night manager. Well, know that the rule is no guests after ten.”

I almost shouted: DOES IT LOOK LIKE I HAVE A GUEST, but my better judgment won, and I just said, “Cool.”

“Now,” the manager said, leaning on the desk and putting my card to his chest, “have you thought about upgrading your membership?”

“Not really,” I replied, debating whether this asshole actually wanted me to workout.

“You know, we did just get some new cryobaths installed.”

 “Nah,” I said, “I should be fine.”

He tapped my forearm, and, for the first time, I saw how bony his hands were. He had bone running down his knuckles that was so ingrained to the skin it could have been an x-ray.

“You’re sure you don’t want to give it a whirl?” he asked. His fingertips gripped my forearm while he tapped his index finger against it like a metronome. “Just to try it?”

Why is his hand so cold?

“No,” I replied, glued to his skeletal hand, “I think I’m good.”

He sucked his teeth at me and withdrew his hand. “Well,” he said, “if you change your mind, you know where to find me. In the meantime, though . . .” he said, finally scanning my card, “enjoy a complimentary protein shake from our smoothie bar.” He pulled the coupon out from somewhere behind the desk.

“Y’know what,” he said, grabbing a pen, “I’m gonna have them make you my special mix.” He smiled as he wrote “Special Mix” on the coupon, his snaggletooth stabbing his lip as his jaw moved. “It’s sure to knock your socks off, bro.” He slid the coupon across the desk.

“Thanks,” I mumbled.

I started toward the leg press, which was past the spin studio, free weights, and just after the yoga studio; but I didn’t make it far before running into the reason I was here so late. Amanda emerged from the darkened spin studio, noticing me while she slinked toward the desk on her stallion legs. She locked eyes with me and refused to let go, even when I broke away. Something in the way she moved said it didn’t matter if I wanted to talk to her. All she had to do was flash me that feline grin, and she’d leave me frozen. 

Why does that make her so much hotter? I asked myself as she did just that, when our paths crossed at the midway point.

“Hey, you!” she said, patting me on the shoulder a bit rougher than the day before. “When are you coming to see me again?” Her voice was as smooth as raw corn liquor.

What is it about pretty women that always makes me feel so guilty?

“I don’t know,” I said, looking at the floor. “Maybe soon.”

“What’s that you got there?” she asked, pointing to the coupon I had forgotten to stuff into my pocket. “Got a free shake?”

I nodded.

“Here,” she said, taking the coupon from me, “let me make sure you get the special. . . .” She stopped when it was close enough for her big brown eyes to read. “Ohhh,” she said, “looks like you’re already taken care of.” She threw a flirty glare my way. “You know, the smoothie bar’s that way,” she said, gesturing behind me.

“I know,” I said, a bit defensively.

“Then what are you going this way for,” she said, starting to move past me. “Get it while you can, hon,” she said, smacking the back of my thigh as she went toward the desk. Her spandex hips accentuated each step as she watched me watch her walk away.

The fuck? I thought to myself, starting to blush as I felt over the spot she hit. I froze like a deer caught in those brief seconds of indecision when the headlights blare right before the impact. I was lucky enough to remember where I was and step aside before getting run over. 

Waitresses fish for bigger tips . . . trainer’s fish for clients, I thought to myself, sighing.

I retraced the way I came and went toward the smoothie bar. I had to pass the desk again to get there, which also meant avoiding Amanda’s leer. Just don’t make eye contact, I told myself, managing to block out that I was still following this chick’s orders.

The smoothie bar was tucked into the corner past the front desk and the entrance, right before the pool area and locker rooms. I gave the coupon to the barista, who informed me that the “Special Mix” was Magna’s in-house protein. He said that I must have struck a chord with someone in upper management to get a taste because “Magna Powder” hadn’t been made public yet. When the barista handed me my shake, he held onto the Styrofoam cup a few seconds after I had a grip on it. I sensed him watching me like I’d stolen something when I walked out with it, which, honestly, made me feel like I had.

I resumed my route to the leg machines, taking a sip of the shake as I walked. Not bad, I thought to myself. The protein was a little thick, which made the texture kind of powdery, but it wasn’t a bad taste.

When I passed the desk again, I distracted myself from Amanda by eyeing up the walls. Blue and red wallpaper was plastered all over the gym, but the area I read had the phrase: “SWEAT IS JUST YOUR FAT CRYING, SO DON’T BE A GIRL AND CODDLE IT!” written in big white letters. I let that phrase wash over me as I made a left at the spin studio. I was about halfway along the free weights and benches when I saw Brad doing an incline press with some 50s. 

Brad was a tall, dark-haired guy with perpetual 5 o’clock shadow. The sort of guy who refused to wear anything but designer clothing, especially when he worked out. Today, he sported a pair of cutoff Polo sweatpants and an Under Armour sleeveless. I had hoped switching to a night workout might cut Brad out of the picture, but, apparently, he’s here before sunrise and after sundown. As I passed by, I gave him my ritual nod and hoped the encounter would end there, but I also knew there was no way it would.

“Watsup, bro?” he said, without breaking form. He sat facing the mirrored wall behind the free weight rack, effortlessly raising the 50s above his head in fluid motions. His gaze never focused on his own form while he lifted but scanned the area behind him for opportunity.

“Not much,” I replied, noticing the curvy, spandex-clad blonde that happened to be reflected in Brad’s direct line of sight.

“Watch my stuff for a sec, bro?” Brad asked, dropping the dumbbells as he stood up.

Brad ran his fingers through his hair like a comb while I glanced at the open leg press sitting in front of the first line of ellipticals. “Only take a sec, bro, promise,” he said.

“All right,” I conceded, slouching as I leaned on the head of the bench.

“Thanks, bro,” he said, giving me a fist bump. Brad turned around and strutted toward the blonde squatting with the smith rack.

This is why you don’t talk to people at the gym, I thought to myself, taking a long sip of my shake. I remembered the day I broke that rule and spoke to Brad. I had been with Magna about a week and he was one of those faces I always seemed to pass, but what made him stick out was the quirky way he would wear his shorts. He always rolled the pant legs and waistband up a few inches. I thought it was kind of weird and, somehow, I worked up the nerve to ask him why. There was a hint of condescension in his voice when he answered, “So the ladies can see how big my legs are.”

Since then, I’ve been trapped. Forced to watch Brad strut over to women like this blonde, have them take their headphones out, and then do body squats right beside them to exemplify the “proper” form. This one, like most, played along for that part but sent him packing when he got to the “Maybe we should work out together so I can supervise” part of his routine. Brad strolled back over to me without a care whatsoever.

“Thanks, bro,” he said.

“No problem,” I replied.

“So, bro, I know you got a shake there, but . . .” Brad said, lifting my arm by the bicep and inspecting it, “you been getting enough of your protein?” Brad then began patting me up and down like he was a cop frisking a perp. “Bro! You haven’t, have you? I mean, just look at the state of your lats.”

Is there a reason everyone’s feeling me up today?

“What a waste, bro,” Brad said, withdrawing his hands from my body. “And what’s with the protein shake? You just about to get a pump in, aren’t you?”

“I know it’s supposed to be after, but . . .” I said, looking over my shoulder to find the distant outline of her staring at us from behind the desk, “Amanda said I should.”

“Oh,” Brad said when he and Amanda made eye contact from across the gym. She gave Brad a very girly wave, using just her fingers. “Then just . . . just forget what I said.” Brad sat back down on the bench. “She’s a professional, so she must have her reasons. Just pretend like I didn’t say anything, and go back to your workout, bro.”

“Okay,” I said, resuming my route to the leg press. God that was weird, I thought to myself as I passed by the other gym regulars: the two shirtless morons that like to watch each other flex in the yoga studio mirror, the bodybuilding dwarf with facial hair that made him look like something out of Tolkien, and the gaunt anorexic chick on the elliptical who made me sad. She was so thin I couldn’t tell where her thighs and calves met her knees, almost like her legs should have belonged to an insect. I always felt like I should report her to someone, and seeing her here this late, in the same place, made me almost do it. What ended up talking me out of it was the manager; I knew he’d never do anything as long as she paid her membership fees.

I pushed those thoughts to the back of my mind and kept walking. I told myself not to drink more than a quarter of the shake before starting my workout, but it was half-empty by the time I reached the leg press. I cursed Amanda and her stallion legs when I felt a cramp after a few reps. I tried to push through, but the heavy, lethargic pain in my ribcage was too much. I stood up and immediately wanted to fall over when the pain slipped from my ribs and started turning my stomach. The men’s locker room was on the other end of the gym, and I stumbled past the lines of machines to get there, determined not to throw up in the middle of the gym.

I entered the locker room and passed the familiar onslaught of wrinkly, gray-haired, distinguished looking old man penises. Those saggy, drooping penises were flinging about as usual. As I stumbled toward the stalls, I felt so sick that I forgot to tell myself it’s not gay that I looked because most of the penises I caught a glimpse of were seen by accident. However, when I actually got into one of the stalls, I didn’t feel like throwing up anymore. In fact, all I really felt was a little sleepy. My body started to get so heavy, and the toilet seat didn’t seem like a bad place to rest my head.

Before finally drifting off, I thought of all those flaccid old man penises and muttered: “Not . . . gay. . . .”

 

Eyes shut and body completely limp, I feel only the cold porcelain warming to my cheek. As I am picked up by wrinkly hands, my skin peels from the porcelain like an adhesive. I’d be certain I’m floating if my arms and legs weren’t being held above my sagging torso, though I still think I might be. I am moved forward, and the cheek that had been resting against the porcelain is sent into a cold sweat by the shifting air. 

“Set him over here,” a rugged female voice says.

My body is molded into a sitting position and propped against something hard. I start to feel the beat of my own heart and whatever I’m propped against seems to feel it too.

“We’ll take it from here; start preparing the ceremony with the others” she says. The weight of bare feet trotting away sounds like a quiet symphony of paws.

“You get his left, I’ll get his right,” the rugged female voice says.

My hands are moved to each side of me. I start to fall left, but I’m quickly set still.

“I feel like we could’ve given the bro a few more weeks to bulk up a bit,” Brad says, his alpha male bro-speak unmistakable. “I mean, like, what’s the point of all this risk when the gains are so small?”

My wrists touch cold metal, and warm flesh grips my forearms.

“Anymore and we might lose our shot,” the rugged female voice says. “Bigger they get, more difficult they are to herd.” 

Ropes tighten around my wrists, hugging them deeper into the cold metal. I catch one last phrase from Brad before passing out completely. 

“Yeah, but still,” he says, “I’m not here for novelty.”

 

I wake up to a dream. The sound of moaning, heavy breathing, and a wet snapping are first to greet me. The scent of charred meat fills my nostrils as I open my eyes. A cloud of smoke tightens around my lungs as if to say: You’re lucky you woke up at all.

I stand up on the dirty stone floor and see a cluster of robed figures crowded around each other. The smoke rises from where they’re huddled. I back away but trip; torches liven from every corner, revealing the temple walls and an empty throne beyond the huddled figures. I want to curl up and cry when I see what I tripped over. The heaving, animal ferocity of naked souls intertwining on their straw mattresses is uninterrupted by me falling over them. I count at least ten of them before tearing myself away.

I struggle to pick myself up, but the second I manage to, I’m faced with a man taking a flog to his bare skin. He’s so close I can practically taste the sweat beading down his forehead. For a moment, I’m frozen by the way his mouth twists with each rhythmic whip of the flog against his skin. It sounds like a wet snare drum.

I whip around as fast I can and see a man with an obscenely toned ass facing the corner of the temple. His elbows are bent at his side while his hands are out of sight. When his shoulders move, I hear a thin slice and a groan. He cranes his neck toward me, bites his tongue, and raises his hand above his head. He holds something that looks like a raw hot dog. When my brain connects the dots, I fall down and throw up. I lie with my stomach to the ground and hear the throaty chants begin to sound.

“MAGNA MATER.”

“MAGNA MATER.”

“MAGNA MATER.”

When I find the nerve to turn around, I see the robed figures kneeling before the bonfire. The body has the end of a stick poking out from its head and rear. The rotisserie is held over the crackling flames by two wooden pillars at each end of the fire. The outline of a scream is still melting down the face of the black and pink body as it’s turned over the flames.

That’s when I know I’m fucked.

It doesn’t help much when they start splitting the roasted body between each other like chicken breast.

I feel the heat of a world on fire as the throne behind the feast grows as tall as the ceiling. A ghostly, veiled woman appears at the throne from nowhere. She’s accompanied by two lions that rest beneath each arm of the throne. She has a motherly face, wears a mural crown, and holds a cornucopia in her lap. The flames begin to swallow me as her massive, wispy lips part. As though she is right beside me, I hear her leafy whisper in my ear when she says, “Oh, my son, you are so very fucked.”

 

When I woke up for real, I could see the fire from where I was tied up. There were profiles of naked bodies scattered about the gym, each with their arms crossed and faces shrouded by hoods. I knew I was tied to the elliptical when I heard the sound of pedals moving back and forth from behind me, the methodical repetition like a heartbeat ringing through my ears. The rest of the equipment had been pushed against the walls and the entrance.

 “So,” said a vaguely familiar voice from behind me, “finally awake, huh?”

Three people stepped out in front of me. I presumed the one in the middle had been the one to speak. The other two stood a step behind him on either side. They were all nude, except for their hoods, which made it clear that they were two men and a woman. One glance at the woman’s tan, hairless, stallion-muscled thighs, and I knew it was Amanda. For a second, I pictured her wrapping my head between her soft, naked thighs and popping my skull like a watermelon.

If I could be so lucky, I thought to myself.

The one in the center removed his hood, the rhythm of the elliptical against my back not skipping a beat. The snaggletooth told me who stood across from me.

“I know this is usually the part where I tell you what happens next,” the manager said, “but I have a feeling a little birdy came and already cued you in.” He smiled and let the tip of his tongue find the sharp end of his snaggletooth. “A little context never hurt anyone, though,” the manager said, winking. “You see, the thing that people usually get wrong about gods, is that you get what you give.”

“You want those mad gains, bro,” said the other person beside the manager (clearly Brad), “nothing’s better than some pure muscle in your system.” Brad pounded his washboard abs as he said that last phrase.

“And a little divine protection,” Amanda added, her voice sounding much gruffer than when she’d ordered him to grab the shake earlier.

“Which,” the manager resumed, “is where you come in. Not like we can get everyone to take the ‘Special Mix’.”

“Yeah, pussy,” Brad chimed in.

“Also,” the manager said, “if you’re wondering why you passed out, it’s because the ‘Special Mix’ has an obscene amount of protein in it. Enough that it starts running through your system and gives us more bang for our buck in the end.” 

The way he said it made me figure he was the one I had to thank for that detail. The three of them started walking away, but, for once, something just didn’t sit right with leaving things like this.

“Hey, Amanda?” I said, while I still could. She turned around, her big brown eyes looking down at me through her hood. “Did you know I always thought you were really pretty?”

“Of course,” she said. “That’s why you’re here.” She turned around before I could say anything else. She knew I understood.

I’m the kind of person that people eat.

The elliptical stopped moving and a woman’s gaunt face came down from behind me. I knew who it was when I saw the cheekbones, they were even bonier from upside down.

“Hi,” she said, as she licked her lips.

I swallowed hard, knowing what would happen next.

 


Trevor Templeton is a writer who says he’s from Chicago but is actually from the northern suburbs of Chicago. He writes fiction as well as poetry, and “Magna Mater” is his first published work. He is currently based in the Chicago metropolitan area.

Categories
Issues

Alison Brackett


Pushing Daisies

 

My feet lulled to a stop as I approached the corner of Van Buren and Plymouth, my shoes scuffing against the frigid concrete. A song was playing through my headphones, but I couldn’t seem to focus on the words—instead, all I could focus on were the sirens and horns produced by the cars whizzing past me, their motion slapping my face with gusts of wind. Their movements were so fast and so violent that as my feet teetered dangerously from the sidewalk toward the pavement of the intersection, I realized how easy it would be for me to step into oncoming traffic and face what I feared most.

In a matter of seconds, all that I had come to know would cease to exist. I would cease to exist. It was as easy as one step forward, as if I were back in time taking my first steps. My death would be as fast and violent as the oncoming cars—a quick way to go, a painless way to go, if things went well. All the grief and pain bottled up inside would be gone in a minute—poof—swirling out like a genie from a bottle, disappearing as if it was nothing—as if I went through all of that for nothing.

Was it my death that I feared? As a child, death didn’t frighten me, nothing did. All I knew was cartoons and sun-kissed summers in my backyard—I had yet to be exposed to the grim reality that existed beyond my fenced yard. I was unstoppable—invincible even, braced against the weight of the world with a Barbie doll in one hand and a smile on my face. In my eyes, death and all things bad existed in a land far, far away from mine. They were purely fiction, contained in the box of my TV screen. 

It was a time when death wasn’t something I considered, let alone my own. I lived under the impression that death only happened when you were too old to go on living. Grandpas and grandmas died—and that was it. I took my great grandpa’s death like a champ because at ninety-six years old, he had lived a good life and I knew that. That was what was supposed to happen. My naivety shielded me from the certainty that would one day come crashing down on me when I least expected—the truth that death was more than just old age; it was accidents, diseases, drugs, abuse. And it could happen to me or the ones that I loved most. 

On the given times that I happened to envision death, what it could possibly look like, it appeared in the form of the Grim Reaper. He was the shape of a man, and nothing more, dressed in black with a scythe that was meant to instill fear. He was a frequent character in my childhood cartoons, a folktale that spawned after the Black Plague, yet he was death. He pursued the old, the sick, the unlucky—waiting, just waiting, for the right moment to strike, for the right soul to collect.

The thing that nobody tells you, though, is that he’s real. No, not literally, but I’ve seen him—felt his presence in the air, smelled the death that lingered after him, encountered him more times in the past few years than I ever could have imagined. He’s the cause of accidents, cancers, overdoses, and all premature deaths. He’s the root of the problem. I thought I knew the Grim Reaper, as an innocent child staring at my TV screen, but I was wrong.

I’ve lost enough people to fill my tally sheet—one turning into two turning into a strike across the entire board. I thought it was fair enough to assume we were well acquainted; I knew him as well I knew my nosey next-door neighbor. You know the one, don’t you? Buttoned up Hawaiian shirt, receding hairline, a wife who sleeps in a separate bed—we all have one. So how is it possible we couldn’t be well acquainted? 

He wormed and wiggled his way into my life, made himself a main character that was not needed. He shocked me once; he shocked me twice; I didn’t think he could do it again. I told myself that I knew it all—the ins and outs, the grief that’s acquired when you lose somebody you love, the gaping hole left behind in your soul, the numbness that spreads throughout your entire body. I told myself nothing else could surprise me.

I was wrong. Oh God, was I wrong.

I wish I could have better prepared myself. Instead, I allowed myself to continue living in ignorance. The unexpected still existed in a faraway realm, way out of my reach. The sudden deaths and diagnoses I saw across my Facebook feed would never, could never, happen to me. Until it did.

Within just a year, all I had conditioned myself to know and accept crumpled with the deaths of two people close to my heart. One unexpected, one drawn out—neither was easy. Despite all the lies that had filled my head and told me otherwise, I wouldn’t know grief—or him—until then. My mind would not be able to fully understand the concept of grief until I was forced to grieve a person still living. I wouldn’t know death until I was left with no choice but to accept that a piece of my life as I knew it was gone. Unwillingly, begrudgingly, I had to pick up the pieces and continue forward.

I underestimated him. I took the luxury of the life and family that I had for granted. My comfort bubble was popped in the blink of an eye, in the matter of a day. I did what we humans do best, what we have been doing since the beginning of time—took things for granted.

He taught me to fear death. He instilled an uneasiness within me—one that causes me to draw out phone calls in fear of the possibility of a final goodbye and stress over every cough and sneeze. I fear the unexpected, for what is waiting in the shadows for those that I love. But do I fear it for myself? Do I realize that he can get me, too? Do I care?

Suddenly, the blur of a blue CTA bus whizzed past my vision—my reflection stared back at me, eyes as empty as I felt, yet questioning, as if to ask me what I was doing. She didn’t have to, though, because she knew exactly what I was thinking, what I was doing, and she was judging me. Wake up, she said. Wake upWake upWake up. The bus was gone as fast as it had come—it couldn’t have been more than a few seconds—but my reflection’s judging eyes were enough to draw me out of the grave I had found myself buried under. It was enough to bring me back to reality—enough to inch my feet backward, back onto the safety of the sidewalk, far from the fast and violent cars and my fast and violent thoughts.

 _________________

Alison Brackett is currently residing in Montgomery, Illinois. An excerpt of her short story “Portrait of a Half-Empty Girl” was recently published in Hair Trigger, Issue 42, and in 2018, her short story titled “Sciamachy” was published in Horizons

Categories
Issues

K. Uwe Dunn


No Code

 

(Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals).

No code and cremated.

Not only do I want to be left dead, but I want them to throw me in the fire to make sure. 

Burn me to a crisp, to ashes.

And you’d want the same, too, if you saw what I did. 

I saw a person come back to life. 

She was dead. Real dead. 

Eyes open. Pupils dilated. Skin pale. Nothing moving. No pulse. No respirations. 

And it wasn’t just for a few seconds. We’re talking minutes. Around twenty minutes.

But she was a code. Amazingly, Martin, a fellow CNA, had Vickie’s code status memorized. The RN, Robin, asked and he knew right away. 

Yep. She’s a full code, he said. 

Her next question: does anybody know CPR?

She had worked in a cardiac unit for fifteen years. 

She knew exactly what to do.

I stood there and didn’t move.

I don’t remember who grabbed the crash cart, but Amanda, a CNA whose mom is an EMT, took the ambu bag and began squeezing it. Martin started chest compressions. 

Hand over hand, arms locked, bouncing up and down, working his heart to restart hers.

When he got tired, Amanda took over.

She said a rib cracked, two, and then eventually three. 

I don’t know if I was in the room at that point, as I didn’t hear any.

But she said she could feel them breaking. And she heard them crack.

I had learned CPR in class, but I had never seen it done live before. If no one else had jumped into action, I would have done it, I think. But since Amanda and Martin were so proactive, I didn’t need to be. 

Later I would feel guilty, guilty that in the crucial moment, in the call to action, I was hesitant.

At least I didn’t panic. And I didn’t run. 

I stayed in the room and remained calm and there was a role for me.

Robin told me to clear the room for the EMTs. I moved the bedside tables and chairs into the hall. I pushed the other bed against the wall. 

Then she told me to run and get the stethoscope.

When the EMTs came, all three big, strong, heavy people, dressed in navy, they took over. 

It had been about twenty minutes now.

I thought for sure there was no chance. I didn’t know how long they would go on for before they gave up. 

To me, it looked like a corpse bouncing, or a mannequin.

How long do you beat a dead resident?

And then she started breathing. They got a pulse. 

She hadn’t regained consciousness. She was alive, technically, but in what capacity?

She would most certainly be brain damaged if not completely brain dead. 

I wondered what kind of activity, if any, was still going on in her head. 

A spark here, a quiver there, a childhood memory from the sixties.

How much of Vickie was still left?

Amanda and Martin were heroes, as far as I was concerned.

They had saved her life. 

They were champs. 

They jumped right in without hesitation and started doing CPR. 

I made sure to tell everyone who would listen. 

Together, they were voted employees of the month.

Neither of them had ever done something like that before. They had never done chest compressions on a live person. 

Nobody thought she was coming back, but she did. 

We held hands. Martin said a prayer. Everybody cried except me. I don’t know why.

But I made sure to say, later, after things had settled down, with no uncertainty, I want to be a no code. If I’m ever that dead, and she was fucking dead, man, don’t bring me back. Leave me dead. Let me go.

The broken ribs would suck. The pain would probably be horrible. But it wasn’t that. It was you don’t really come back from that, and if you do, in what kind of state? 

Imagining myself at varying degrees of brain dead was a terrible thing: lying in bed, drooling, hooked up to a ventilator. 

The gray area of what it means to be alive.

How much would still be me?

No thoughts. No memories. 

Maybe some flashes of dreams.

I didn’t want to think.

And then I wanted to be burned just to make sure. 

To make sure there was absolutely no brain activity.

No sparks of life. 

No low-level consciousness. 

Just ashes. 

It was the same fear that inspired the grave bells, taphophobia, the fear of being buried alive. 

Pull the string. Ring, ring, ring.

“Saved by the bell.”

I told my wife I wanted “No Code” tattooed on my chest. 

She said EMTs, like employers, like the elderly, don’t respect tattoos. 

“What?” I said. That’s ridiculous.

I know. I know. 

I might do it anyway and campaign to get the rules changed. 

God forbid, but when the EMTs cut my shirt open, I want them to get a definite message. 

DO NOT REVIVE.

DO NOT SQUEEZE AIR INTO ME.

DO NOT POUND MY CHEST.

DO NOT BRING ME BACK FROM THE DEAD.

If there’s nothing left, there’s nothing left. 

What font would be best?

Usually I prefer cursive but, in this situation, I don’t think that would be ideal. 

We’re not going for finesse, for pretty.

It should be something big, something bold, something that screams.

Clarity and emphasis are key.

NO CODE doesn’t work.

Neither does No Code.

Too fancy.

What about bold?

NO CODE.

There. That’s it. 

Thick, black emphasis. 

NO CODE right over the breastbone.

Let me lie.

Leave me be.

Let whatever happens next happen to me.

She was fuckin’ dead, man.


K. Uwe Dunn is a certified nurse aide who lives in central Pennsylvania with his wife, Isabella. He has a bachelor’s degree in English literature, a master’s in painting, and is fluent in the German language. His work has been featured in several literary journals and magazines, including The Northern Virginia Review, and he has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize by both Kestrel: A Journal of Literature and Art and The Petigru Review.

Categories
Issues

Tina Jens


The House That Flowed Through to the World

 

There once was a house lived in by Mr. Him and his son and Mr. Hum and his son, and this house flowed through to the world. Mr. Him and his son and Mr. Hum and his son didn’t actually live all in the same house; they had two houses side by side, but where there might have been solid walls there were instead odd-shaped doorways that would just fit a man and his son. 

And these doorways flowed from house to house, from building to business, from banker to blacksmith, school to sweet shop, carport to club (men’s club, of course). They flowed through to the world.

These doorways were quite a work of art, perfected over centuries. They were cut from oak, carved in intricate designs, the edges carefully beveled and all polished to a deep rich glow. They radiated manliness, as only oak can. And each was shaped to fit a man and his son. You could see the size and shape of the man’s work boots, the square corners of man and boy’s shoulder. Even the cowlick atop the boy’s head that boys can never quite comb down, was cut exactingly into this frame.

This is ridiculous, you might say. Boys grow taller! Men grow wider! A carpenter could work his whole life away and not keep all those doors in proper shape! And besides, neither Mr. Him nor Mr. Hum or either of their two sons had ever picked up a hammer in his life. . . . (Well, actually there was this one time, when Mr. Hum tried to hang a picture of his son. And oh, what was done to Mr. Hum’s thumb! Finally, he hit the nail so hard it flew through the wall and out the other side. It missed Mr. Him’s head by a whisker of an inch. This caused much consternation, as you can well imagine, and they decided no more pictures from then on. When they wished to remember them, they’d look at their boys.)

So who built these doorways, and changed them so often as sons grew taller and fathers grew wider? It can’t just happen by magic, you say. You say! It was magic of sorts, but not the sort of glitter dust in the air and poof! sort. It was elves. Who else? The carpenters of the world. And they didn’t just work at night when everyone else was asleep. How could they with all the doors that flowed through to the world to maintain? No, they buzzed among the men’s feet all through the day, and well into the night, tape measures out, now crouched on a shoulder, now riding through the air hitched to a man or boy’s belt buckle, taking measurements, marking patterns, sawing and hammering and filing the wood. And so skilled and quick were the elves, that no matter how far and wide and fast Mr. Him and Mr. Hum took their two sons exploring the vast breadth of the world, the men and their sons could always walk through the doorways, head high, shoulders back–a perfect fit. There was no place they could not go.

It seemed a near-perfect world . . . except for the blankness on the walls.

Then one day, something happened (it always does), to shatter the serenity, that sense of happily ever after that all fairytales have at the end, which has to be shattered before a new fairytale can begin.

This time it was not a big bad wolf, or a king dressed in a poor man’s clothes, or even an evil witch with a wart on her nose and a poison apple hidden in the pocket of her cloak. It was a Girl. Just a girl. Perhaps a little pretty. Though who could be certain since Mr. Him and Mr. Hum and their two sons really didn’t know how to judge such things.

One day Mr. Hum and his son woke up and found the girl in their midst. Well, not really in their midst; sitting in a corner quietly, waiting to be noticed. They’d gone about their business, had their morning coffee, read the paper, put on their coats to go for a stroll, and nearly stepped through the man-shaped doorway before they noticed her. Who knew how long she’d been sitting there? 

But when they noticed, the quiet was over, perhaps for good!

Oh, the shouting! Oh, the surprise! It brought Mr. Him and his son running quick, as you might imagine. And then! Oh, the consternation! Oh, the recrimination! Of course the elves came running, too.

“Mr. Hum, what have you done? This is worse than the infamous picture-hanging incident!”

Mr. Hum professed his innocence–and he was, you know.

Nobody knew where this girl had come from. She hadn’t come through the man-shaped doorway, that was for certain. Perhaps it was magic of the glitter dust in the air and poof! sort.

The elves didn’t shout. They’re not the noisy sort. They leave that to their distant cousins, the dwarves. But they were puzzled right enough, and stood there scratching their heads, and some scratched their chins, and all wondered what they should do.

They all agreed: Mr. Him and Mr. Hum and their two sons and the elves (who were all men themselves) that it wouldn’t be right to cut a girl-sized hole into all the doorways that flowed through to the world. It wouldn’t be right, wouldn’t be proper, because . . . because . . . because . . . and finally they convinced themselves it just wouldn’t be safe.

“We must build her a room where she will be safe, where she can feel secure and protected, and special in this room of her own,” Mr. Him and Mr. Hum and their two sons and all the elves said together.

And so the elves built her a kitchen with a doorway just for her. Because she curved where men cornered, and she flowed where they jutted, and finally, because bits of her stuck out where bits just ought not to be. Where all the other doorways in the world were built for a man and his son, this was the only room in all the world with that unique-shaped entry. And while she couldn’t fit through their doorways, due to her odd-shaped bits, they couldn’t fit through hers, either. So that was fair, wasn’t it? 

When it was done, the girl went into the kitchen without ever saying a word.

“See, she likes it!” they all cried. And Mr. Him and Mr. Hum and their two sons and all the elves congratulated themselves on a clever idea and a job well done.

And when the girl returned a short time later with food and drink she had prepared, they sat down to a meal, certain all was right with the world. (And never once gave a thought that she might just have been very hungry and hadn’t intended to share with them at all.)

Things went on like this for awhile, with Mr. Him and Mr. Hum and their two sons exploring the doors that flowed through to the world, but always they returned to Mr. Hum’s house, three times a day, so that the girl might bring food from her kitchen for them.

They never noticed the girl eyeing the elves, as they built new doors or altered old ones.

They never noticed her reading certain books–who knew from what odd world or other planet girl-things came from? Who knew what sort of dusty, poofy magic happened among them?

They never knew what shows she watched on their television–beamed in from who knew what solar system–while they were away all day. What man could stand to watch those women’s shows anyway?

They never saw her steal a forgetful elf’s toolbox, when he left it sitting in a corner one day.

But they heard the ruckus and the clatter! Of hammers and saws, and joists and drills, and files and levels, and bevels and beads! And they clustered around that girl-shaped doorway, trying to see in, but they couldn’t tell what she was doing. The noise continued for three days and three nights–and not once did she stop to bring food out to them!

Then everything was quiet. They peeked into that girl-shaped doorway again, shushing the elves who were hollering at her to give back the stolen toolbox. In one corner was a vaguely humanoid figure made of wood. Smaller than a human ought to be. With curves where there ought to be corners, that flowed where it ought to jut, and bits that stuck out where bits just ought not to be.

They saw the girl sitting on the floor with a pencil and a pad of paper figuring an advanced mathematical formula that scrolled over pages and pages. She sat there three days and three nights figuring. Until at last she came up with a number. It was the number of Woman. 

Somehow, perhaps it was magic of the mathematical kind, she had figured out the equation for each type of woman that she had encountered in her books and on TV. There was an equation for the fairy princesses in the fairytales. There was an equation for all the evil witches and old hags. There was an equation for the good queens and bad queens and evil stepsisters. For kindly grandmothers and nosy neighbors. For servants and kitchen maids and slaves. For rocket scientists and nannies. Teachers and preachers and presidents. Nuns and bad girls with guns. For Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden. Mary, Rhoda, and quiet Georgette. For Mrs. Cleaver and Raggedy Ann. For Jeannie, a flying nun, and the identical cousins. For Barbie, Buffy, and Mrs. Beasley, Ginger, Mata Hari, Xena, and even Mary Ann. She factored all these equations together, then multiplied the sum by the square root of the total number of all the different types of women that could be in the world. Then she wrote this number down on a slip of paper.

From the doorway, the men saw her walk over to that vaguely humanoid figure she had built, open up the top of its head, drop that slip of paper in, and close the head up again.

Then the girl crossed her arms and waited.

     And waited.

          And waited.

By this time Mr. Him and Mr. Hum and their two sons and all the elves were quite bored, for they’d never had to wait for anything ever in the world. And so, tired of waiting, and convinced there was really nothing to see anyway–if the girl wanted to tinker in her own time that was fine, but she’d just better start putting out meals again, regular and on time, or there’d be trouble, just you wait and see!–they wandered off to do whatever it is that men did out beyond the doors that flowed through to the world.

But the girl had learned patience. The girl had learned to wait for things, sometimes a very, very, long time. Not once did she twitch or fidget or pace or sigh a deep sigh that wouldn’t this just please hurry up!  She sat waiting quietly.

     For three days.

          And three nights.

               And then, of course, something happened. 

The vaguely humanoid thing wasn’t vaguely or-noid at all, but a Woman. Neither Mr. Him nor Mr. Hum nor their two sons, nor even all the elves (being men themselves) could name or recognize it. But the girl named it. Named it Woman. And with that name gave the Woman all the talents and strengths and knowledge that the vast universe held. 

And the Woman opened her eyes. And she saw. Saw the way of this world with doors fit only for a man and his son. Saw the girl and all her potential locked away in this one room. 

The Woman stood up. She hugged the girl. (Something Mr. Him and Mr. Hum and their two sons had never done, on account of their fear that those odd-shaped bits might be a fungus that they could catch.)  And after that hug, that seemed to go on forever, the girl spoke for the very first time. And these were the words she said:

“I want to go through the doors that flow through to the world. I want to walk to the ends of the earth, and then come back again by a completely different route.”

The Woman said, “Yes.”

Mr. Him and Mr. Hum and their two sons and even all the elves (being men themselves)  would have said, “No.” And, “It isn’t safe.” And, “What’s wrong with this very special room we built you?” But they had stopped paying attention to the silly antics of the girl long ago, and so weren’t there to stop her.

And even though the girl and the Woman still had the set of stolen elves’ tools, and knew how to use them, they didn’t bother with astounding craftsmanship, or intricate carvings, or carefully beveled edges, or manly oak polished to a deep rich glow. They didn’t bother making doors that would only fit their peculiar shape and stop all others from passing through. The only tool they took from that box stolen from the careless elf was a sledgehammer. 

They broke down the man-shaped doors, first one and then the next, brushed aside the splinters, not much caring if they got pricked in the process, and the Woman and her daughter stepped through the wide-gaping hole, out into the world.

                                                             And that’s The End . . .

                                        . . . until the happily ever after gets shattered again.

__________

Note:  This story was first published in Daughter of Dangerous Dames, (Twilight Tales, 2000).

__________________________________________________

Tina L. Jens is the author of the award-winning novel The Blues Ain’t Nothin’: Tales of the Lonesome Blues Pub and has had more than 75 short stories published. In 2017, she received the Rubin Family Fellowship artist residency at Ragdale Foundation. Former editor of the Twilight Tales small press, she teaches the fantasy writing courses at Columbia College and advises the Myth-Ink student group for fantasy, horror, and science fiction creators. Tina occasionally blogs about writing at BlackGate.com and runs the monthly Gumbo Fiction Salon reading series at Galway Arms. Her recent publications include the poem “Lady Ella, She Don’t” in Ella @ 100, and a novelette called “The Patchwork Woman,” a retelling of the Bride of Frankenstein story, forthcoming in the anthology Gaslight Ghouls.

Categories
Issues

Sabrina Clarke


The Countdown

 

  She held her cigarette tight between two fingers as she shut the balcony door. Sounds of the busy street mixed with cicadas below washed over her. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, in and out, nice and slow. When she opened her eyes, her vision darted to catch a bird flying past the balcony. Vanessa glanced at the street several stories below. The wicker chair with peeling green paint revealing old faded blue sat to her right. Vanessa sighed and took her throne with gusto, sinking into the ugly floral cushion.

     With a couple sparks from her cheap Bic lighter, the end of the cigarette caught and she slowly took the sweet menthol tobacco into her lungs and exhaled, returning the lighter to her pocket. The smoke drifted briskly away from her lips and dispersed into the air around her and above to the scattered clouds reflecting the warm evening sun.

     Ten.

Vanessa sat back, biting her lip, careful to pull off the chapped skin. She drew the cigarette back to her lips. Ready to smoke, to think. It was a short time before she had to go back inside– roughly four-to-five minutes, maybe ten drags from the Marlboro hanging in her fingers, and she would be back to the cold, away from the embrace of the sun and the sounds of the city.

      Nine. Two flicks.

She nearly forgot to take time between each pull to make it last and take in some breaths of actual air instead of the menthol crystallizing in her lungs. Vanessa curled the edges of her lips to a soft smirk, flicking her eyes to the metal bucket to her right. How many days are in there?  Some cigarettes were from that day, others weeks old, months old, copious amounts of cigarette butts with different shades of red lipstick, some barren, like today’s, or a couple when she was trying to wear darker shades and he didn’t like it. Purples, blues, even some black lipstick; all faded, and forgotten.

     Eight. Two flicks.

     Vanessa took a deep breath of real air again and let her arm hang over the armrest of the chair, letting the light wind brush against her. He hated the smell of her when she came inside from the balcony. That’s three times a day (at least) that he wouldn’t kiss her, wouldn’t hold her. She had to brush her teeth if she wanted to be near him, and let the smell dissipate after a while. Perfumes sometimes helped, but not always. At the very least, he hated seeing her get weepy and panicking all the time, so she was allowed this solace on the balcony when she needed it.

      Seven. One flick.

      Flashes of memories struck her. The argument about that actor in that one movie last month really stuck with her for some reason. She said he was in a movie, he said he wasn’t in that movie, that’s all she can remember of what was said, nothing important was ever said during fights like that. He threw the remote at the wall and it rattles now. It took him forever to admit he got too angry about nothing, never saying the word sorry, she noted. They had sex to forget about it later that night. 

      The next week he was trying to diet to make sure that she wouldn’t leave him for someone better. He was so hungry that he told her to fuck off and die when she offered to make some food for them, but that was just him being “snippy”. It was warm out, too, he said, she knew how he got when it was too hot.

       A drop of sweat slid down Vanessa’s cheek and hung to her chin. She brushed it away and threw her hair behind her shoulders.

       Six. Two flicks.

       She tried to rationalize. At least she had work the next day, and that will keep her mind off things. At least he did the dishes that day, for once. At least she had a job. At least he stopped cheating on me when I’m there, she thought. At least he apologized for that. Vanessa took time with the next long drag.

He wanted her to quit smoking, because he cared about her, he said. Why didn’t she care about herself? Doesn’t she understand that if she left him he’ll just die? Why didn’t she understand anything?

        Five. One flick. Nicotine hits.

        Vanessa leaned back in her throne and slowly exhaled the smoke, resting her head on the back of the chair, able to relax just a little. Finding comfort in hisold chair, on his balcony, his apartment, was funny to her in some ways.

        She found she just didn’t have the energy or the height to climb over the balcony railing many days like today. 

        The cicadas roared in the trees below.

         Four. One flick.

         She picked at the paint on the chair with her left hand. The red paint was chipping off her nails, too. Vanessa bent the tips of her fingers inward and felt the lip of the nails on her skin where she bit them down. 

         How many apologies has it been?  

         Three. One flick.

          Enough, she thought.

          Two.

          She closed her eyes and felt the warmth of the evening July sun on her lids. The cherry was at the very end of her cigarette. Vanessa wanted another one but her pack was inside next to him. The argument would be a pain.

          One. Squeezed out the cherry. Burnt thumb.

          How many Julys has it even been anyway?

          Enough, she thought.

 

Sabrina Clarkeis a fiction writing student at Columbia College Chicago. Previously, she has won first place in the fiction category of the Skyway Writing Festival in 2016 and second place in nonfiction in 2017. She has been published three years in a row in the literary magazine Horizons, as well.

Categories
Issues

Kelsey Estoque


Come Away to the Water

Down along the riverbank

feet deep in sand

tread carefully and not too loud

for danger is at hand.

 

You hope to glimpse a water nymph

with slim legs and fair hair

but who you meet is something worse

she’s lurking in her lair.

 

The restless soul of someone lost

who died a death so bleak

in the lake she may have drown

or in spirit, so to speak.

 

With sallow skin and withered hands

and eyes as dull as stone

she’ll pull you down into the depths

this wicked water crone.

 

Her father knew this well when he made that bargain.

As he drags her through the mud, her bare feet slipping¾its cold bite feeling like that of an asp Eleanor sobs and pleads with her father to stop. The moonlight shines a path through the foliage, unphased by the cloudless night, it guides her father like a beacon. The stars twinkle above, unbothered.

Her mother scrubbed her down beforehand, her hands bearing buckets of water. Eleanor tried to fight when she was stripped, but this woman was not her mother.

Not with a face of stone and hands of iron. Not when she looked into those brown eyes and all she saw was the cold stare of hatred in place of the usual, gentle, passion and love.

When she was naked before her mother, she dumped the water on Eleanor and attacked her with brushes and soaps, not even hesitating as she washed her everywhere, even when Eleanor shrieked at her mother to stop.

Shaking and weak from the effort of fighting, Eleanor barely had any strength to retaliate, as her mother dragged a comb through her long, black hair, yanking hard enough that Eleanor’s eyes watered. Her mother left her hair unbound, and dressed her in a plain green robe. With nothing beneath.

Eleanor begged her over and over. But her mother might as well had been a stranger.

When she left, Eleanor tried to squeeze out of her bedroom door after her. Her father shoved her back in.

“You no longer belong to this family,” they both kept repeating. More for themselves than for her.

A sacrificial lamb for the slaughter.

Now the bath seemed useless, as her body is drenched with sweat from the trek, making the fabric of the robe cling to every hollow and curve, leaving little to the imagination, the chill of the spring night peaking her nipples. Muck is caked up to her ankles, and little scratches mar her ivory skin from the branches dragging against her like nails. Like claws, she imagined, trying to pull her back, pull her away from her father, from that lake, but they could not succeed.

She tries to wrench her arm free, but her father’s grip is like that of a bear trap. She continues to plead and beg to him, but he just stomps through the mud and brush.

Eleanor didn’t expect him to become so desperate, so pathetic. This past winter had been rough, and instead of staying in the village’s usual hunting and fishing spots, he chose to raid the Nymph’s Lake.

Swimming and fishing in this lake is forbidden due to the creatures inhabiting it. They would grab unsuspecting swimmers with their webbed fingers¾their jagged nails digging in deep¾and drag them beneath the surface before they could scream.

Supposedly, there are five who live amongst the reeds and lily pads. Eleanor rarely glimpsed more than their shining heads peeking through the glassy surface. They forbid anyone from fishing in their territory and attempts to drive them out had previously failed¾miserably. As a result, the lake had run dry: the water turned to mud, fish died by the hundreds, and eating them caused incurable disease. However, they make an exception when there is something they can gain. They like to bargain and trade; they ask for something in exchange for allowance to fish in their lake. In turn, the lake is now decorated with odd trinkets¾on the trees, in the cattails and bushes, buried in the mud or left on rocks.

Under a large weeping willow, there’s also been a makeshift shrine erected between the roots. Eleanor can’t remember when there weren’t any flowers, candles, and fruits tangled between the roots as thick as her wrist.

Her father had made such a bargain with the nymphs, and when her mother asked how he was going to pay such a large sum, his cold, gray eyes only looked to Eleanor.

Her hair is still barely dry as thick strands of it cling to her back, dampening the robe. Her poor circulation leaves her skin as cold as ice.

Perhaps she should feel flattered, somehow. Her father would have to still think of her as valuable in some way if he’s dragging her there.

The glittering surface of the water emerges over the small hills of grass, between the birch trees and the curtains of the weeping willows. Its calm façade is a trap.

Grinding her teeth, Eleanor digs her feet into the cold mud and attempts to run. Her father hadn’t expected it, so one wrist slips free, and she doesn’t hesitate to rake her nails along her father’s hand, freeing her other.

Eleanor bites back her cries of pain as her torn feet slap into the sharp stones and dry branches. She hears twigs cracking behind her, and she only makes it four long strides before a strong and cruel grip locks around her hair.

Eleanor screams in agony as her father yanks her back, throwing her to the ground. Her cheek scraps along a rough root bulging from the ground, her hands skinned on the rocks. Lights dance in the darkness of her eyes, the world tilting. Warm blood dribbles down her leg from a cut on her knee.

As she rubs her head, her father is already there, gripping both her wrists in one hand, and backhanding her with the other.

Both cheeks stinging, he hauls her to her feet, and they continue towards the lake.

No!” She roars, echoing across the empty sky. “NO!”

Eleanor can’t fight back against her father’s hands that move to grab her under her arms and drag her toward the calm water. She can feel the wind tickling her cut and bloodied feet as she kicks and thrashes, trying to claw her way free.

Closer and closer, he hauls her, like a bucking horse, toward the rippling water. Trinkets from other offerings dangle from branches or sit knotted to cattails, winking in the moonlight. The mud and sand are littered with more shiny things, others are too covered with mud to recognize.

She could see two waiting heads peeking from the water, eyes on the flap of the robe that falls open as she kicks, revealing her thighs, her stomach, everything to them. Eleanor sobs, even as she knows the tears will do her no good.

The heads submerge under the water, leaving little ripples behind.

Oh, gods. Oh, gods.

Eleanor yanks back one last time, falling to her knees, ignoring her open robe. She scrambles to crawl away, digging her nails into the mud. Her nails crack on the rocks as she continues to pull herself away. Her wordless pleas wrap her dirtied body. “Please,” she begs. “Please, father¾!”

Agony rakes across her head, scalp throbbing, with a slap of his hand. Pain ripples across her face, and she feels blood drip from her nose as she topples into the mud. A harsh blow to the face, so hard her teeth sing. She doesn’t have time to raise herself properly before her father grabs her by the hair again, right at the roots, the grip so brutal tears sting her eyes, and continues to drag her to the edge of the water.

As quickly as it happened, he pauses, but his hand still grips her hair. Eleanor angles herself to look at the lake, gripping her father’s wrists.

She nearly soils herself. The forest has gone quiet.

Standing at the center of the lake, is a slender, gray-skinned figure, staring with massive eyes that are wholly black. Like a stagnant pond.

Even when her father releases her hair, Eleanor can’t find it in her muscles to run. Immobilized by fear, she watches as the creature slinks through the water towards them.

She wears no clothes. Her long, dark hair hangs limp over her high, firm breasts. As she moves, the moonlight shimmers on her iridescent skin. When she stops just at the water’s edge, she lowers her delicate, pointed face towards Eleanor. Her nose is little more than two slits, and delicate gills flare beneath her ears.

Completely at odds with the childhood rhyme she had memorized when she was young.

Quivering like a leaf, Eleanor looks to her father, whose eyes are wide with shock . . . and fear.

The nymph stops just past the water’s edge.

“Speak, mortal.” She orders. Her voice is strange and hissing, her full, sensuous lips revealing teeth as sharp and jagged as a pike’s.

“I have brought an offering.” Her father says, his face like granite.

The nymph cocks her head to the side, those unearthly features devouring Eleanor. She had been told that the water nymphs eat anything.

Eleanor can’t hold herself up as her father shoves her to the creature’s webbed, clawed foot. Its color a molten grey.

“In exchange, I get to fish from here whenever I want.” He states. It was an effort to keep from gaping at the immovable face, at the pure command in the words.

“You would give me one of your kin, in exchange for access to my lake?” The sharp angles of her face accentuate those coal-black eyes.

“It seemed befitting for the amount of fish I gathered.”

A whimper punches its way out of her throat. Out of the corner of her eye, she can see the shadow of the nymph turn to look to her.

“But she is still your flesh and blood.” She says, taking a step closer.

A too-casual shrug of his shoulders. “One less mouth to feed. And we can always make more.”

His words are icy.

Eleanor huddles into her robe. If she hadn’t felt enough betrayal before, then this is what has broken her soul.

Her fear has now turned numb, solidifying her like stone as she clasps her hand over her breasts.

The mud has licked its way up to her knees, staining her robe, and sending a chill up her spine where it has soaked her lower back. The nymph takes another step closer, lined with preternatural smoothness. She beholds the disheveled Eleanor¾her dirtied legs, her scratched arms, broken nails, bruised wrists, and drying blood at the end of her nose.

Eleanor forces herself to look up at the creature. She can’t even find the words to defend herself. Her heart cracked, her soul shredded, her body grows still in acceptance of death. Her shoulders slouch and she takes deep breaths.

The creature’s face is as placid as the water’s surface. Perhaps even bored. Eleanor feels so exposed with this robe, and she bows forward, pressing her forehead to the ground. The nymph slowly extends her slender arm, a ripple of scales winking in the silver light. Her gills open and close with each steady breath.

Then she swipes.

Eleanor doesn’t scream, barely having the time, but ready to feel those claws tear at her throat. Instead, something drips onto the back of her neck. Eleanor opens her eyes to find that, she still has them, is still kneeling in the cold muck.

A garbled choking from behind has her slowly looking over her shoulder.

The nymph’s glittering hand has shoved through the throat of her father, puncturing it wholly. Her father still gives a garbled scream as the nymph slashes his eyes into ribbons with her other hand, his throat shredded seconds later.

Her father collapses face-first into the mud. His face looking toward her. Numb with shock, Eleanor can only stare in horror, her eyes welling. She soils herself and covers her gaping mouth.

Blood runs down the nymph’s hands, her forearms. Even though her father hasn’t moved, the nymph snaps his neck with a brutal crunch. Eleanor scrambles out of the way as the creature plunges her hand into his back, into his body.

Flesh tears, revealing a white column of bone¾his spine¾which she grips, her nails shredding deep, and breaks in two.

Eleanor trembles as the nymph grabs her father’s body by one ankle, and in a smooth motion, lined with restricted power, lifts it, throwing him into the lake like a pebble. His body crashes against the surface, and within seconds a heavy foam surrounds him, water lapping and splashing as the nymphs each take their bite out of him. A tainted puddle of red slowly blossoms in the water.

The nymph watches. Eleanor can only do the same.

Once the way is cleared, and the final bone of his body has been picked clean and pulled under, the nymph walks towards a group of cattails and cleans her hands in the mud.

Eleanor is still frozen, still staring at the water as the final ripple crawls across the surface. Her hands are shaking, face tingling, and her cheeks are raw from crying. But she can only stare. Only listen as the nymph sighs in disgust as she continues to clean her hands. She picks under her clawed nails, sneering at the blood, as if it is impure.

After another minute, the nymph is standing at her side. Eleanor doesn’t dare to look at her yet.

Finally, she mumbles, “Why?” Her voice hoarse from her screaming.

“Any man who betrays his kin in greed is unworthy to fish in my lake.” The nymph hisses.

Eleanor doesn’t bother to stand.

“You may go back to your home. We’re done here.” The nymph says, water lapping as her feet enter the water’s edge.

“No,” Eleanor blurts out before she can stop herself. The nymph pauses for a moment, the water having reached up to her ankles.

Eleanor folds her lips in as the creature stares at her with an unnatural stillness. When her eyes flick to the puddle beneath her, Eleanor’s cheeks redden.

She forces herself to her feet. “M-m-my mother, she’s the one who dressed me . . . like this. She didn’t stop him. And, and after what he said, I¾I can’t go back. I don’t want to go back.”

The nymph turns to face her and asks quietly. “Where will you go?”

Eleanor ponders for a moment, daring to touch the abyss of silence within her. “Anywhere,” she then says. “As far away as I can get.”

“And what would you do?” The water quietly trickles.

Eleanor shrugs, and realizes that the creature is standing a mere foot away from her. The creature takes a step back, seemingly surprised by her own approach. She’s a few inches taller than Eleanor.

“Live my life, I suppose. Live it the way I want to. Attempt to get back to normality after . . . this.”

“How far would you go?”

Eleanor looks to the night sky, for the first time admiring the glittering sea of stars above her. “I’d travel until I found a place where I won’t even think my parents. If such a place exists. And I will never come back.”

Not since her parents had been so willing to slaughter her like a simple farm animal. Eleanor huddles into her robe. She’ll have to go back to the cabin to fetch some of her better clothes¾if her mother hasn’t already thrown them out. If so, she may just resort to stealing from their deposit box her mother keeps under the sink. Eleanor breathes, attempting to numb herself, distance herself from these people; to no longer make them her parents. Just strangers.

The nymph is simply watching her.

“Here,” Eleanor pulls the silver band from her middle finger. It was a gift her parents had given her when she turned eighteen four summers ago. She offers it to the nymph, “Take this.”

The nymph’s eyes widen, frowning at the ring shining in Eleanor’s palm. “For what?”

“For saving my life. It is nothing compared to what I should give you, but it is all that I have.”

With a final assessing look, the nymph’s cold, clammy fingers brush against Eleanor’s, gathering up the ring. It glimmers like light on water in her webbed hands. “Why?” She asks, her voice slithering over the words, and Eleanor shivers again as the nymph’s black eyes threaten to swallow her whole. “This could’ve brought you some form of profit if bargained right. Most likely enough to leave town, or to buy a new dress.”

“There was no guarantee, anyway. Besides, that’s the deal. You helped me, and I give you something in return.” Her voice is so small, so broken.

A cold breeze has Eleanor trembling and huddling into herself, trying to secure any kernel of warmth. It’ll be close to a mile walk back to the cabin. It will be a miracle if she can make it. Her feet are throbbing from the cuts of hidden stones in the mud, and if they get infected . . .

Then she has to worry about any poisonous plants that her bare skin brushes up against, possibly having to find some place to settle for the night. Then she may be able to sneak into the house while her mother is gone.

“Perhaps I could interest you in another method of payment.” The nymph suddenly says, stepping close to gently grasp Eleanor’s elbow. She pauses, quite stunned at the soft touch. Slimy, yes, but gentle, as if she’s grasping an egg.

Eleanor’s shaking begins anew as she takes a deep breath, and wordlessly begins to open her robe, the folds falling off her shoulders. The nymph stops her with a webbed hand on her wrist.

“Not that. Something else.” Eleanor could’ve sworn there was a smile on the nymph’s lips. Eleanor’s cheeks warm with embarrassment.

“Then what do you ask of me?”

“The currents of the water hear all, speak all. They whispered to me of your father’s interest in this lake.”

Eleanor blinks back the sting in her eyes, adjusting the robe. “What of it?”

“I had asked for company as payment for his bargain.”

Eleanor opens her mouth, but then says, “To . . . eat?”

A laugh that makes Eleanor’s skin crawl resounds. “To tell me of the surface life. I was curious about it.”

“Why didn’t you say anything?”

A shrug of those slim, gleaming shoulders. “He never asked. So I was interested to see where his choices would lead him. And well, we can see how that ended.”

For a moment, her anger is solid and boiling, but she also understands. Her father could’ve taken her words in any way, and due to their reputation, immediately it went to the worst outcome. “What does this have to do with me?”

“I would still like the company. This lake is big enough for another affiliate.”

Eleanor’s eyes look to the water, then to the nymph. It is her turn to ask, “Why?”

A nod. “You have a strong heart. Compassionate and kind. Gentle and sweet. You look at the hardness of the world and decide to love and to be kind. You gave me your last possession, instead of using it to your advantage. It is a different form of strength that is underappreciated.”

A ghost of a smile widens Eleanor’s lips. “And, how, exactly will this be able to happen?”

The nymph smiles. “Have you heard of the legends stating that a nymph’s kiss can save sailors from drowning?”

Heat stains Eleanor’s cheeks. “No, I have not.”

“Because it is something we only share with people we like.” She is mere inches away, her webbed feet buried in sand. “The choice is yours.”

Eleanor looks back towards the trees and foliage, as if she can see all the way back to the small cabin just at the edge of town. She looks back to the water nymph. “Will it hurt?”

The nymph smiles widely, and Eleanor must resist the urge to take a step back, as she leans forward. She lifts her hand to caress Eleanor’s cheek, catching a stray tear she didn’t feel. She takes a quick breath as the nymph places her wet lips on hers. She smells of fish, but the scent mingles with fresh lilacs and roses.

The kiss sends a zinging current snapping against her skin, and as it crawls with goose bumps, it feels like a ripple that is slowly washing away her human blood until it is smooth like sand, molding her brittle bones into fresh steel.

Her lips are hot and soft against hers¾tentative¾even when the kiss deepens. Her clawed hand traces along Eleanor’s cheek before resting at the nape. There’s a tickling sensation just below her ear, and it’s enough to make Eleanor gasp, breaking the kiss.

The nymph takes a step back, smiling softly. Eleanor’s hands fumble to her neck, and she hisses when her nails scratch against an open flap of skin. When she inhales, the air tickles, and she can smell everything. The wet mud surrounding the pond, the freshwater lilies in bloom, the shift in the salty wind as a storm approaches. She can also smell her father’s blood, lingering near the center of the water.

When she looks to the nymph, she is only smiling with joy. Unfiltered joy. She extends her webbed hand.

When Eleanor looks to her own, she hadn’t realized she’d stiffened her fingers together. When she slowly opens them, the webbed skin between them stretches. Strong, and taut. Her cuts and bruises have healed, her nails having regrown into points. Not one stain of crimson on her now-shimmering skin, like that of a pearl. In the moonlight, she can see patches of scales already pressing through her skin, as if in an attempt to shed it.

“It will take your body some time to process the change. There will be growing, and shedding, and adapting.” The nymph says softly.

Eleanor looks to the outstretched hand. Slowly, she discards her robe. The chill of the spring night is gone. Replaced with a breeze that sings to her, that whispers bouts of warmth and salt.

After another moment and a deep breath, she takes the nymph’s hand. She follows her hip-deep into the water, and the nymph says, “Welcome home, sister.”

With one final exhale, Eleanor dives headfirst into the water.

Categories
Issues

Arely Anaya


The Safe Place

 

Home is me in my bed alone. It wasn’t always like that, but the older I got, the more uncomfortable I became with anyone sleeping with me. I get anxious because it’s like they’re invading. This is hard on guys I screw since I don’t ever offer up my place. I don’t let family members sleep in my bed either, no matter how rude they think it is for me to offer them the couch.

The only time I loved sharing my bed was when my deaf grandmother on my dad’s side moved in with us for a few years. She was a recovering alcoholic with short brown hair who smelled like thick, earthy perfume. I was her only granddaughter. When we slept, she’d let me hang my short leg over her hip. She’d give me all the pillows because she’d rather rest her head on a folded towel. When I’d wake up thirsty, she’d instinctively sit up, reach for the jug of water on her bedside table, and unscrew the cap before handing it to me. I didn’t have to sign or touch her to communicate. If I did, it was to say goodnight and tell her I loved her.

I loved her for being nice to me, but also because my dad wouldn’t hit my mom around her. The few years she lived with us were the calmest my parents’ relationship would ever be. My grandmother’s presence was one of the only chances for our home to feel like a home. But my mom never wanted her there.

My mom thought my dad made my grandmother keep an eye on us while he was at work because my mom cheated a lot, especially with one of the mechanics from the auto place a few streets over. So, my mom made her miserable, picking fights with her over the smallest things, like how differently they did the cooking and cleaning, to make her feel like she was taking up space.

My grandmother eventually moved back to Mexico when I was eight. Her earthy perfume continued to waft from her side of our shared bed. I’d form her curvy body with pillows, and imagined hanging my leg on her. I missed her. My grandmother leaving was when I started feeling the most at home but only when I was in bed by myself. Sharing with anyone else felt like a sweaty nightmare. Afterward, I guess everything in terms of home felt that way.

My dad hadn’t done anything about my mom cheating until my grandmother left. One of those first nights he locked the door to their bedroom. Smashing furniture, shattering glass, and my mom screaming left me frozen in the hallway. I should’ve called for help. I should’ve stopped him. She was still my mom. But despite how scared I was, I remember hoping my mom regretted pushing my grandmother away. It was the most hateful I’d ever felt, and to this day it still scares me.

 

A few months after, and for the first time ever, my mom and I managed to flee without my dad catching us. We escaped to an emergency shelter for families fleeing domestic abuse. We had to share a bed. A childless Indian woman slept on the top bunk. I wanted to sleep on the top, but the place was too crowded for me to have my own bed.

My mom knew I hated sleeping with her. She’d caught me sneaking out of the room enough times that she forced me to sleep up against the wall. But that didn’t matter. She was a heavy sleeper. Most of the room snored, but my mom’s snores were like growls. She sounded like a sleepy demon, and I wanted out.

Her curly hair tangled over the pillow. If I stared at it long enough, it would start to look like clumped balls of dead spiders. I’d crawl away to the end of the bed to her small feet. Her toenails would scratch my arm as I slid down to the floor.

Our bunk bed was the furthest from the door. The scrapes on my arm would burn the more I crawled across the carpet. A digital alarm clock sat on the nightstand by the door. The red numbers were my guides.

Anytime my mom would toss and turn under the blankets, I’d stop dead in my path. I’d close my eyes and pretend to be a chunk of the dark. I waited to hear if she’d wake to throw something at me or come pull me up by my hair. If not, I’d keep slithering. Reaching the door, I would move onto my knees, glide my hand up to the knob, and escape.

I’d walk down the shadowy hall to check the payphone. Favian, the boy from room six, always hid a stick of gum in the change dispenser for me. He knew I couldn’t have gum. He thought my mom didn’t want me swallowing it and needing emergency surgery. But really, she thought chewing too much gum would make me lose my virginity. I honestly don’t know the science behind why she thought that, but I never questioned it as a kid. Mom knew best, I guess.

Favian became my buddy within a few days after I got to the shelter. We had been in a group counseling session with all the other kids. He asked me to feel his full head of hair before he’d have it cut the next day. Then we talked about our moms: both hard asses with snappy voices and obsessed with the Argentine-born singer Amanda Miguel.

The sofa next to the payphone was one of my favorite spots. Some couches feel like you’re getting lost in the rolls of a fat man, but that sofa had solid cushions, fluffy enough to freely roll around in without the fear of disappearing. I’d lie down on my back, close my eyes, and chew my gum. Sometimes, the gum would drop to the back of my throat and I’d choke. Other times, I’d fall asleep with it in my mouth and wake up to feel it in the same spot between the inside of my cheek and teeth. I wanted to make that sofa feel like home but it never worked out.

My dad would call me and I’d tell him to come find me. The ringing would shoot me awake. I’d hop off the sofa and yank the phone down by its chord. He’d call sometime after midnight because he knew my mom didn’t want him talking to me. She hated him for hitting her. I could hate him, too, because him hitting her made her hit me. But I didn’t hate anyone. I hated never being able to break them apart, like when my dad would drag her by her hair through the living room, or when he’d reach over to the back seat of the car to swing at her while he kept driving. We’d swerve, and she’d wrap her arms around me in case we crashed, instead of protecting herself from my dad.

 

As soon as I got to the shelter, I had weekly solo meetings with some type of counselor named Ms. Kim. The meetings were simple. I’d show up after breakfast, she’d ask me how I was doing, and we’d do an art activity while we talked. I didn’t understand at the time that the point of the meetings were to talk through my dad’s domestic abuse. I thought it was a way to keep the kids from getting bored.

On our first meeting, we were cutting out snowflakes as it was getting closer to Christmas. We sat across from each other at a table I knew was too low for her.

Ms. Kim asked, “Did she ever defend herself?”

I nodded.

“What was it like?”

The small pieces of paper fell onto the table as I kept cutting. “There was a lot of hair paint.”

Later on, I noticed Ms. Kim had a habit of untucking and retucking a strand of her red hair from behind her ear. Being new at what she was doing for us kids, I think she was always nervous.

She leaned in. “Hair paint?” Her lips were a hard line, and her brown eyes usually squinted at me like she wanted to read my mind. It always made me nervous.

“My mom had her hair tied up in a bun, a bunch of black in it, on her ears and neck. She was washing dishes in her bra and underwear. I ate cereal. I was going to school.”

“And your dad?”

“Getting home from work. He got mad that she was coloring her hair. He always said she colored it a lot for her other boyfriends.”

“That’s when they started fighting?”

I nodded. “My dad kept calling her a ho. So, my mom told him to fuck off, and he smacked her.” Ms. Kim hadn’t flinched when I swore. I realized I had said it when I grabbed another sheet of paper and folded it. It felt too late to say sorry.

“What happened after that?”

I grabbed the scissors, started cutting again, and allowed the white pieces of paper to keep sprinkling onto the table.

“My mom grabbed a knife and chased him around the house.”

She uncomfortably scrunched her brows for a second before forcing them to relax. “Were you scared?”

“A little. I was gonna get to school late.”

“What did you do?”

“I followed my mom to the front of the house. She locked my dad out. He tried to calm her down so he could come back in. But she’d stab the knife at the glass, and say bad words, like BAD words. My dad didn’t look that scared anymore. He was laughing.” I grinned down at my snowflake, remembering his playful smile covered by his mustache.

I think he laughed because he didn’t want to take her too seriously and let her win. My mom’s eyes had been knives of their own, and her breasts and curvy sides shook every time she stabbed at the glass, harder each time, wishing she could cut the smile off his face. For once, my mom hadn’t been the one running, and I was too young to realize how important that was.

“She was really upset,” Ms. Kim noted.

I nodded. “At me, too, because I was bothering her. I kept telling her I was going to be late to school, but she wouldn’t listen. When she did, she yelled at me to go finish my cereal.”

“How did you feel when she yelled at you?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. Sad? She was still mad I told my dad about the mechanic.”

“The mechanic?”

“One of my mom’s friends who’s a boy.”

My mom had given me that explanation every time I asked who a guy was, and it made complete sense to me.

Ms. Kim swept all the tiny pieces of white paper into a pile with her fingers. “What happened next?”

I shrugged. “I finished my cereal.” I rarely hesitated to talk about my parents fighting. I liked having Ms. Kim ask me questions, because my grandmother was one of the only people that ever asked me things consistently. It made me think for a little while that the shelter wouldn’t be all that bad. I unfolded my second snowflake and placed it next to the first one.

 

A few days later, all the kids were scattered outside of Ms. Kim’s group room after breakfast. Some were racing back and forth, and others were lying down on the carpet as obstacles, complaining that we’d been waiting for hours, although it’d only been a few minutes. Our group session was going to start soon. I had been sitting on the floor up against the wall next to Favian. I couldn’t help thinking I should’ve gone back to my room because I had caught ringworm after playing with the older boy who told me he could only pee upward. He told me about that randomly, so I don’t know if that was even true. Only I hadn’t known he had given me ringworm. I thought it was some flesh-eating disease that was going to take me out within a few days.

Favian kept nudging my shoulder. “Are you going to tell me?”

I shrugged.

 “Come on. You can’t say something’s wrong, and not say what’s wrong.”

I looked around at the other kids to make sure no one was listening. I kept pulling my turtleneck up against my chin, paranoid it’d slide down and expose my scaly red skin. My mom told me not to tell anyone I was sick, but I told Favian, “I think I’m dying.”

He narrowed his eyes at me. “Cancer?”

“I don’t know what it is.”

He glanced down at my turtleneck, and then back up at me. I nodded.

He scratched his shaved head and glanced around. Then he asked, “Can I see?”

I shook my head. “You’ll run away.”

“I won’t.” He reached for my neck.

I smacked his hand away with the long sleeve of my sweater. “No! You’re going to get it, too. You’ll die and your mom will hate me and tell my mom.”

I also didn’t want him to die because I obviously had a huge crush on him.

“Tell me!”

“I don’t know what it’s called. Something worms, like wings worms. I can’t remember.”

“What the fudge is that?”

I shrugged. “But it sucks, and you can get it if you touch me. So, don’t. And please don’t tell anybody.”

“Should I call 9-1-1?” He reached into the pocket of his sweatpants for quarters to use the payphone.

“No, save it for gum.”

A little girl came stumbling toward me. She was maybe two or three, and she sat on my lap. Favian and I both gasped, as if she was stumbling into her death. She really liked me, a curly haired black girl with big cheeks that were too precious to squeeze. I kept my hands hidden in my sleeves.

“Hey, cutie. Come sit here,” Favian patted the floor in front of him to save her from me, but she wouldn’t listen.

Her older brother with an afro and scar on his chin came up to us and snatched her away from me. He glared at my turtleneck. I looked down at the floor, feeling overwhelmingly guilty, because he knew that I knew I was contagious, and yet I was hanging around other kids.

“Don’t touch her,” he snapped, before walking away.

Ms. Kim came out of her room, and the kids screamed and ran to line up. The scarred boy went up to her and mouthed off. He pointed at me. My stomach stirred, and I could feel my blood rushing to my cheeks. Ms. Kim let all the kids go in, but asked me to stay. Favian lingered, his hands on his hips, ready to say something if needed.

“Favian, everything is fine. Frida and I are going to talk for only a minute. Go ahead.”

He hesitated before going in. The hall was deserted, shadowy with the hanging lights casting shadows, except for the scarred boy standing by the entrance to the play room. Ms. Kim hadn’t noticed. She put her hands on her knees to match my height. I looked down at the dark carpet.

“I’m sorry that you’ve been sick.”

I’m not sure why I wanted to cry, but the knot in my throat grew the longer she stared at me.

“Is it okay if I take a look?”

I nearly swung my sleeve at her, but knew to shrug instead. She pulled down the turtleneck and exposed the patchy red rings.

“Oh, sweetie.”

I bit my lip at the fact that I knew what was coming.

“You can’t join the group session today.”

I sighed and blinked repeatedly to keep the tears back. “But I like group” my voice cracked.

“I know you do, honey.”

I looked up at her then. Her tied back hair made her white face look gentler, a soft blush in her cheeks and big eyes.

“You’ll just have to hang out with your mom for a while until you get better.”

“I don’t like hanging with my mom.”

“It’s only for a little while, okay?”

I wiped away the tears from my oily, round face.

“Oh, angel,” she reached to touch my face, but stopped herself.

I pulled my turtleneck up over my chin. I slogged around her and down the hall to look for my mom. I walked past the scarred boy.

He told me, “Angels don’t have nasty skin.”

Even without ringworm, I still don’t think I have the greatest skin because of eczema: red, itchy, inflamed skin. That was the first time I ever felt disgusting, and that feeling hasn’t fully worn off since then.              

 

A few weeks later, I started feeling feverish, fatigued, and had muscle aches. If I stood for too long, my sight would blotch black. I’d get sweaty and faint. I’d collapse onto the closest thing to sit on, sometimes just the floor, put my head between my knees, and breathe like Ms. Kim had shown me. My mom thought I had the basic flu. She gave me pills too big for me to swallow. I’d choke and cough them up into my hands in a slobbery mess.

She’d yell at me in the bathroom where no one could hear us, “How you expect to get better?”

I felt the most alienated in the dining hall. I rested my head on the table, confident my forehead would leave behind sweaty smears, but I didn’t care. The kids chowed down on their grilled cheese sandwiches with their mouths open. My mom was assembling mine like all the other mothers had done for their kids. If I wouldn’t eat, she’d pinch my arm when no one was looking, call me mocosa, and blame me for being sick. But I couldn’t eat. My mouth was filled with blisters and it hurt to chew.

I was an eight year old that caught herpes. I didn’t realize it until years later. I get flare ups from time to time, and the symptoms are all too familiar to the first time at the shelter. I had a habit of sticking my fingers in my mouth. I can’t remember who I might’ve touched, or if one of my cuts or rashes made me vulnerable when playing with the other kids or getting coddled by one of the other moms. But I’m pretty sure the boy with the upside-down penis had something to do with it.

My mom came over with a grilled cheese sandwich made from the butts of the loaf of bread on a paper plate. If I didn’t feel so crappy, I might’ve appreciated her kindness a little more.

She pulled her chair closer to me, “Tuviste suerte.” 

It was the last sandwich, but I still don’t think there’s anything lucky about butt slices. I eyed my sandwich disappointedly, while the other kids stretched the melted cheese high above the table before lowering it down into their mouths, munching carelessly.

K.K., the boy with pierced ears and bony fingers, pointed at my plate saying, “Ew, you eating ass.”

He turned to the other kids, and they laughed. My mom gave them a soft grin with her colorless lips from giving up makeup. She didn’t understand English, and assumed K.K. was making polite small talk. My cheeks would have flushed, but I was already warm.

I lowered my head, pulled off a piece of sandwich, and put it into my mouth. I wanted to feel hungry. I wanted my mouth to water at the comfy smell of molten cheese and buttered bread. Instead, I felt like a fat baby was sitting on my head, and my skin was oily from the Vicks my mom had rubbed all over my chest and nose, because she was so convinced that I had the flu, and didn’t think I needed any doctor visits.

I tried to chew, but the toasted bread rasped against the blisters, sending stabs throughout the roof of my mouth and up my nose. I flinched and stopped chewing. I let the bread sit on my tongue, and waited for my saliva to melt it away.

 

I stood in front of the sink in the community bathroom with a cup of salt water in a Styrofoam cup. My mom said it’d help with the blisters, but it didn’t stop me from staring into the cup like it was something toxic. I was worried it’d melt my gums because maybe my mom had grown tired of having a sick kid. After leaving my dad, I was convinced maybe she thought she could get rid of me, too.

My mom came into the bathroom, and I pretended to drink.

Se siente mejor?”

I nodded and kept the cup against my face. In the mirror, I watched my mom walk behind me to the toilet. She was wearing my dad’s purple work shirt with El Taconazo printed on the back. She pulled down her pajama pants and sat. I put the cup down on the counter and stared at the mirror some more. I could see my brown forehead and short, wavy, black hair. She had cut it earlier because I got lice. So, I get why Favian had gotten his head shaved. My dad would’ve called my hair cute, but all I saw was Dora the Explorer. I still see Dora the Explorer when I look at pictures.

My mom farted and I switched the sink on to let the water flow as loudly as it could. But it wasn’t enough. The farting echoed in the toilet bowl, and I could smell hard-boiled eggs. I glanced at her, not sure how to stand there without looking awkward. Maybe now I’d ask my mom what the heck she ate, but back then, I was scared shitless witnessing her poop.

She glared and tossed her long, tangled, brown her behind her shoulder. She shouted, “Que me miras?”

I turned back to the mirror. She wiped her butt, pulled up her pants, and flushed. I brought the cup back to my lips but didn’t drink. My mom came over to the sink. I watched her look down at me through the mirror. Her thin eyebrows nearly disappeared into her wrinkles, and I could see the fresh marks on her chin from picking at her skin with her long nails when she got nervous. I felt my stomach swell into my chest, making it hard to breathe. My hands get sweaty now just remembering.

She snatched the cup from my hand and looked in it. It was obvious I hadn’t been drinking any. I stared at the drain, feeling stupid for not dumping some out. She rammed the cup into my face. It crumpled and tore, spilling the water down my neck and chest. The edges scratched my cheeks. But what had hurt most was her palm bashing my nose. I moved my hands to hold my face. I used to think that stopped the pain from rushing to the rest of my body.

I locked my eyes on the drain, and she smacked the back of my head, swearing it was the last time she’d try to help. She stepped around my puddled-self, and left the bathroom. Each time she hit me, it convinced me she hated me. I didn’t get used to it until I was maybe in late middle school. I didn’t learn the smack, pinches, and name-calling didn’t mean she didn’t love me until I was maybe in high school. Well, I kind of learned. I still second guess it.

I gently licked the crown of my mouth. I focused on the soft and swollen bumpy texture to keep from crying, I teared up anyway. I stuck my thumb in and up against the roof. The blisters didn’t burst and made me cry out against the mirror.

I pulled my thumb out and caught my breath. Then I stuck my thumb back in and tried again, using my nail instead. I didn’t feel any popping. It only burned. I pulled out my thumb again, smeared red from my mouth bleeding. I spit into the sink, blood and mucus.

 

After the night my mom and I left my dad for good, I spent years wishing I had known so I could’ve warned him. She shook me awake and told me to get my ass up. I grabbed the book bag she had packed with all my socks and underwear, but not enough shirts. Before leaving I peeked into my parents’ room. The TV was still on, flashing light along the walls and bouncing shadows. My dad was deep asleep on the bed, still wearing his work boots. I couldn’t stop thinking about how he’d feel waking up to an empty house.

My mom pinched my arm and pulled me away from the room. We hurried out onto the frosty front lawn where my old kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Cabrejo, was waiting for us in her red, rusty van. She kept glancing at our windows. Jumping into the van, I could easily see her thick, scrunched eyebrows in the dark. She was in her pajamas, too.

She asked my mom, “How are you feeling?”

My mom slowly pulled the door shut. “I think I’ll feel better once we’re off this street.”

Mrs. Cabrejo looked back at me. “Sleep, Fridita. It’ll be a little while until we get there.” She adjusted the heat. “You let me know if you two feel too warm.”

I was cold, but my hands were sweaty. My mom hadn’t explained to me we’d be leaving. I’ve added it to the list of everything else she didn’t bother to tell me because she thought it wasn’t important, or because she thought I wouldn’t understand.

“It’s called The Safe Place.” Mrs. Cabrejo was shaking and wouldn’t stop adjusting the heat. “It’s a shelter for families like yours. You’re going to love it. You’ll sleep a lot better.”

It confused me how sure she sounded about me sleeping better elsewhere. The only other time I slept as well as I did when my grandmother and I shared a bed was during long car rides. My parents and I would stroll around the mall, in and out of stores, without ever buying anything. Then my dad would buy us dollar ice cream cones. The drive back home he’d play his oldies mix, hold my mom’s hand, and I’d fall asleep in the back seat feeling the safest I’d ever felt in my life. The drive to the shelter felt the exact opposite.